Gabe opened his mouth to speak but Dad cut in first. “The United Shifter Council. It’s a newly established governing body that oversees the whole of Forest Lake. Ever since Stonevale was invaded." He hesitated.
"Never mind, that can wait. Why don’t you stay here with your mother? She’ll pour you a drink and I’ll go and make some arrangements.” He gave me an encouraging smile like he always did to try and reassure me that he’ll magic everything better again.
“You better fix this, Dad,” I pointed my finger as I walked past, narrowing my eyes into furious slits.
He sighed and scrubbed a hand over his handsome face. His red hair was messy for a change, no thanks to Mom. He had a scattering of grey through it but it was more prominent around the sides above his ears. His entire side of the family had bright red hair. My hair was red. Even Gabe had red hair and he wasn’t even related to us. Did that mean that all fox shifters had red hair? Had I just made a connection?
And Stonevale... Wasn’t that the place that Axel’s family was talking about? Some sort of trouble happened there not so long ago. Now what? Had each species merged together to form some sort of governing council? There really was a lot that I didn’t know.
Mom breezed through the sitting room and went straight over to the drinks cabinet, pulling out a bottle of pure orange juice and handing it to me.
“Here, do you want a glass and ice?” she offered.
She couldn't bring herself to look at me. It was an admission of guilt on her behalf. When I wouldn’t take it she thrust the bottle into my hands. I had my eye on the vodka, that’s what I needed. Something to take the edge off, not fucking Tropicana.
“Mom, I’m not twelve. Where’s the vodka?” I shoved the bottle of orange juice back at her and poured my own drink.
“You’re pregnant, aren’t you?” She glared with disapproval as I downed the clear spirit and winced as it licked a firey trail down my throat. “You can’t drink alcohol in your condition,” she scolded, snatching the glass from my hand.
I didn’t even have the energy to argue back.
Dad had been gone around ten to fifteen minutes. When he came back he was fully dressed in his black trousers, dress shoes and a white button-down shirt.
“Daddy’s taking care of it, Princess, it’ll all be fine.” He held out his arms to try and embrace me, only for his face to flash with hurt when I refused to accept the gesture.
I was glad he was helping to get Axel back, but that didn’t mean he was getting off the hook.
“You’re angry, I understand.” His Adam's apple bobbed, nervously as he swallowed.
“You think? You lied to me!” I spat, angrily in retaliation. “I know what you are—what I am. Although, I’m not sure if I am exactly like you. I’ve never felt the urge to, you know? Change. I can’t believe you never told me. That was a dick move, Dad, even for you!”
Dad immediately jumped into self-defense mode, deflecting the blame elsewhere.
“Ohh, make me out to be the bad guy. Thanks a lot. It's not easy coming out, you know? Especially when your mate is human, the rejection rate is seventy percent higher. You know what I think, I blame that shrink you hired to brainwash her.” Dad’s face turned an angry shade of red as he turned to face Mom.
This was Dad all over...nothing was ever his fault. Mom wasn’t any better, she was just as stubborn. What a pair!
Mom’s shoulders slumped and she slammed her, now empty glass, down on the dark wood coffee table in frustration. “Ugh! Carlton can’t you just drop it. I’ve said I’m sorry. I thought I was doing what was best at the time, no thanks to you I might add. You were no help at all. And anyway, she didn’t brainwash Riley, she helped her to deal with the trauma.”
“Exactly; She brainwashed her into forgetting everything. She can’t even remember her first shift,” Dad smacked the back of his fingers against his other palm as he spoke.
“Wait? What?!” I spluttered, feeling dumbstruck.
I remembered all the sessions I had with my therapist; all the nightmares, the anxiety, and only being able to sleep if the light was left on. I think I would know if I'd shifted before. I would... Wouldn’t I?
Ignoring my mother's pleading face, Dad turned to me with rounded eyes that were filled to the brim with empathy and compassion. “Honey, what do you remember about that night you got lost in the woods?”
“You wanna drag all this up now?” Mom’s exasperated voice rung loudly around the room.
“Why not?” Dad’s icy glare snapped to meet Mom's desperate one.
There was a wild hint of crazy in his eyes that made him actually seem quite scary.
“It’s all relevant. It’ll help her deal with the news that she’s not entirely human. Besides, you can’t use emotional blackmail anymore, Sasha. Yes, I should have told you about me from the start, but we should’ve learned from our mistakes and at least told Riley the truth. You denied me that.” He pointed at Mom and her bottom lip trembled.
“Carlton! For God's sake, really? She’s pregnant, go easy on her.” Mom looked as if she was gonna burst into tears at any second.
Dad noticed this and his face instantly softened. His stance relaxed and his voice adopted a softer tone. “Sasha, there is no baby. Don’t you think I’d be able to scent the pregnancy hormones?”
“What? Riley? But you said—” Mom’s teary-eyed gaze flicked towards me.
I held my palm up in front of me, defensively. “Mom, I just said that to try to pull us out of a tricky situation.”
She cut me off, “So, I’m not going to be a grandmother?”
I couldn’t tell whether it was disappointment or relief, but she placed her head in her hands and actually bawled her eyes out. It was official, I had caused the Ice Queen to suffer a nervous breakdown. Thank God I was an only child because if I had sibling reinforcement, she’d probably be six feet under, pushing up daisies.
Dad walked over to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, tilting her chin so that her eyes met his. They were equally matched in height, standing eye level with one another. Which led me to wonder whether all fox shifters were short, too?
“She lied to the press, and good thinking, too,” Dad told her, appearing impressed.
He turned to me as he comforted my mom. “You’re a smart girl, Riley. Which brings me back to that night in the woods. You didn’t just get separated from the rest of your class; your teacher said she thought you were getting sick. That same teacher, whose silence I had to buy, said you had a temperature of way over one hundred and four degrees; you were convulsing and screaming in agony. She said you were scaring the other kids, so the other teachers got them all out of the way.”
Mom was clearly uncomfortable with discussing the topic. She tried to pull away from Dad but it didn’t look as if he was letting go of her any time soon.
“Riley, honey, it's been a long night. Why don’t you just get some rest?” Mom suggested, hoping to sweep this under the rug.
“Wait just a second,” I murmured, remembering a snippet.
Everything Dad had mentioned started to filter itself into my brain, unlocking the vault of my memory bank. Overwhelming memories came flooding back to me, forcing me to relive every painstaking flashback. Before I even had time to think about it, I was telling them things, my mind was reverting back to when I was seven, a timid, traumatized little girl who thought she was dying.
“I was getting dizzy. I’d felt weird all day like I was getting sick. But I never got sick. I’d never been sick before in my life. At first, my head hurt like I had the worst headache ever. Then the muscles all over my body started to ache and it hurt to walk. Throughout the day it just got worse and worse until I started to burn. I was so scared. It felt as if I was being burned in a furnace. Like my skin was on fire.”
I flinched and jerked away as my father put his hand on my shoulder. I didn’t even notice he’d walked across the room to me.
“I’m so sorry, honey, we should have been there,” Dad's softened words were laced with remorse.
The second time he placed his hand against my shoulder, I left it there, enjoying the warmth that spread through the fabric of my shirt and heated my skin. That small gesture of reassurance spurred me to continue.
“I can’t remember what happened after that. I don’t know exactly when my teacher took off and left me there. But she did. I called out for help, but nobody came. I can’t remember my body changing. But I think I remember becoming something else; seeing things differently and all the smells. I ate a mouse and then I threw up. I thought it was a dream, you know? After a while.”
I felt vulnerable under my father's restless gaze, feeling as if I was seven again, retelling everything for the first time. This was what should’ve happened all those years ago. Not now I was an adult. In a flash, I wrapped my arms around my dad's waist and clung to him like a child. Just like the monsters from my nightmares coming to life, my childhood trauma was real, the memories were real—and I really did eat a fucking mouse!
Dad stroked my hair and spoke softly with reassurance, “It's okay, sweetheart, you gotta let it all out in order to undo all that psychological hoodoo that the human brainwasher put on you.”
I heard Mom force out a breath. “Seriously, Carlton? Hoodoo? What the hell does that mean, anyway?” Mom whined as if she wanted to say ‘for fuck's sake’.
“It's another word for Voodoo,” Dad muttered, with distaste.
Mom got all up in Dad's face at the side of me, flinging her arms up in irritation. “I don’t know why you didn’t just say Voodoo in the first place then.” Her pointed finger swiped and landed within a hair's breadth away from Dad's nose. His eyes bulged and refocused as they zoned in on it. “And that’s your problem, Carlton, just say what you mean. It’s no good passing the blame; you should’ve told me you were a fox shifter at the beginning, then we could’ve avoided mentally traumatizing our only child, the messy divorce, the whole shebang.” She flung her hands up again, “You’re a smart guy, what did you expect would happen?”
“I know that. Don’t you think I know that now?” Dad pinched the bridge of his nose and gave an exhausted sigh. "I said I was sorry."
It was as if I’d stepped into a movie theatre and I was watching someone else's life appear on the big screen. My heart thumped like a tribal drum in my chest. It was like someone was hitting it with a hammer—a hammer with nails poking out of it. Everything was such a mess, and for once, I wasn’t sure whether money could fix it.
“So it really did happen. It feels weird saying it out loud. I had my first shift in the woods when I was on my school trip. That’s what happened.” All the suppressed memories had come back to sock me in the gut, blow after blow like I was standing in the middle of the freeway during rush hour traffic. I was left feeling physically and mentally exhausted.
Dad's soothing voice calmed me. “You were alone, scared out of your mind, and you had no idea what the heck was happening to you. I take full responsibility for that. No one's to blame but me.” He pulled me against his chest, and just like I was a little girl, I wrapped my arms around his waist and squeezed my eyes shut, wanting him to make everything better.
“So why didn’t you just tell me?” I mumbled into his crisp white shirt. I didn’t know if I’d made a mess all over it as I cried. Fuck it! What’s a bit of snot and slobber between father and daughter?
Dad rubbed my back in small circles. “I wanted to.”
“—But I didn’t.” Mom interjected.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mother reach for the brandy and take a swig straight from the bottle.
“So that’s why you guys got a divorce? You blamed Dad for deceiving you. I remember hearing part of the argument. You said something about cheating.”
Mom wagged her finger while she was swallowing another gulp. “I said it was just as bad as cheating. I felt lied to; not that I wasn’t grateful for the child we had together. You weren’t completely human and I wasn’t sure what that meant for you. He should have told me first, but I guess that’s past history. Your father is right. We should've learned from our mistakes. We’re both to blame, Carl.”
“And if Daddy did tell you everything, would it have mattered?” I asked, turning to catch her reaction.
A wistful smile ghosted across her lips. “I was crazy in love with him—still am. Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered.” Her eyes flicked to Dad.
I pulled away, looking between them. There was so much sadness and regret hanging over them. The look of two people who deeply loved each other and had wasted so much time trying to hate each other, instead.
The room fell into a somber silence. Moments passed before mom broke it, pouring herself another drink that made my dad huff with disapproval.
“Sasha, that’s not going to solve matters,” Dad mumbled, sternly.
“It helps me,” she replied, then knocked the contents down her throat.
She swatted her hand to try and stop Dad from removing the glass from her.
“So you and this guy are married?” Mom asked as Dad snatched the now empty glass away.
“We’re mated,” I replied, pulling away my shirt collar to reveal the bite mark on my neck.
I caught sight of Dad’s sinking expression. It was like I’d just slapped him across the face with a hot iron.
“Sasha, they’re mates.” Dad's brows knotted together as the guilt washed over his face. “Is that a mating license you’ve got there? Let me see that.”
I handed him the document and saw how his eyes scanned back and forth while he read it. He folded it back up and passed it back. “Oh, Honey, I’m so sorry. We’re going to make it up to you both. If you’ll let us.”
I nodded. “You better.”
Mom’s eyebrows raised. “Is he a...”
“Bear shifter,” I responded, abruptly. Mainly because I thought she was going to say something negative.
“Right—” Mom dragged out the word widening her eyes. “And I thought you were going say lumberjack,” she half chuckled. “And he comes from... Bear Creek?” She asked, sheepishly.
I wrapped my arms around myself, defensively. “Yes, Mom, he comes from Bear Creek,” I replied in a waspish tone.
Especially after noticing her mouth ’Bear Creek′ and blink her eyes wide and shake her head.
Dad slammed Mom’s glass down on the drinks cabinet a little too forcefully, startling us both.
“Don’t be such a snob, Sasha. We’ve just invested half a billion into building Thornycroft. Bear Creek is literally right across the water.”
What? My parents are planning to move to Forest Lake? Since when?
Mom answered back in defense, widening her eyes with innocence. “I’m not being a snob, Carl. I wasn’t.”
I watched the interactions that were taking place between my bickering parents. The comment Gabe made about them reconciling must have a ring of truth to it, why else would they be hooking up again and diving into business together. Mom would’ve usually told my dad to fuck off by now, yet here she was, trying to convince him that she wasn’t being a bitch when she so blatantly was.
Dad didn’t look as if he was buying her crap for a second and gave an unconvinced eye-roll back in response. He cared enough to stop her from drinking herself into oblivion, and it was evident that he still had feelings for her. Maybe it was true. Maybe my disappearing act really did bring them closer together.
“Since when have you started calling Dad 'Carl' again? The last time I checked, you hated each other.” I shot her a questioning look, which made her gasp like a deer caught in the headlights.
Mom licked her lips, nervously. “Well, if you must know, your father and I have decided to try again.”
“You’re getting re-married?” I looked to Dad who seemed to shrink back even more than Mom did.
Dad choked out, “We’re still mated. That still stands. You can’t remove a mating mark as easily as signing on the dotted line. It was the human marriage we dissolved, but that was just for show for the press.”
Mom huffed. “Yeah, the night you bit me I thought you were into BDSM.”
Upon hearing that, I almost threw up in my mouth, placing my hand against my now fragile stomach. I decided to switch subjects. “So, what about Grandpa and Grandma, Uncle Dalton and Aunt Celia? My cousin, Sheena? Am I right in believing that they are all shifters too? It’s just so I know.”
Dad looked to mom then back at me, nodding in confirmation. “Yes, everyone on my side of the gene pool. My mate, your mother was the first human to mate into my family.” His lips curved up into a lopsided smile as he glanced at mom. She blushed and pressed her lips together.
I dropped my tensed shoulders and let out a forced breath, slowly feeling myself start to relax. The black leather sofa felt cold against the back of my bare legs as I sat down, curling up into a ball and resting my head on one of the big, furry teal cushions.
This was all I’d ever wanted for years. My parents back together again. Don’t get me wrong, I was glad it was happening. I just wished I was here under better circumstances.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but are all fox shifters short?” I spoke the first thing to pop into my head, then caught sight of my Dad's scowl.
“Yeah, short, blue eyes and bright red hair,” he mumbled, crossing his arms in an incensed pose. “You know, we may not be the tallest, but we’re the smartest race of shifters. We dominate the business world, not to mention infiltrate governments all across the world. The secretary of defense is a fox shifter you know? But his hair turned grey through age and stress. There were quite a few famous fox shifters throughout history: Galileo Galilei the scientist, and there was Thomas Jefferson the president. Even Bill Gates, he’s a--”
“No—” I breathed, jumping up off the couch, completely astounded. “Really? I can’t believe it!” I thought that I’d read it somewhere that Bill was a natural redhead.
“Yes, all fox shifters. Pretty cool, huh?” Dad nodded his head, impressively. “See, you can be proud of your heritage.”
Mom scrunched her lips as she thought. “What about Donald Trump? He was a redhead, and he’s a billionaire businessman. Are you sure he’s not a fox shifter?”
Dad flinched back with a look of pure outrage on his face as if Mom had just slapped him. “No, Sasha. No.” He shook his head, wide-eyed.
Mom shrugged. “It's only because he was a ginge—”
“Sasha, just shush, please.” Dad silenced her by putting his finger against her lips.
A knock on the door interrupted our conversation.
“Come in!” Dad called out.
Gabe popped his head around the door and shot me a tight-lipped smile. “Alpha White has asked me to let you know that he’s made the necessary arrangements, just like you suggested, and he should be here in approximately two hours.”
“Thank you, Gabriel.” Dad gave a sharp nod before turning to me with warmth in his eyes. “Why don’t you go get freshened up. You’ll want to look your best when you bring home your mate, won’t you?”
“You mean it? We can bring him home?” My heart raced like a galloping horse. Dad usually came good on his promises. It gave me a shred of hope to hang on to.
Gabe winked at me as he was leaving. He’d obviously pulled some strings on my behalf. I liked him way better than Reed. It looked as if they would be seeing a lot more of each other now that Mom and Dad were back together. Sparks might fly.
Just as I was about to slump away and go grab a bath, Dad called out, “Oh, and you’ll both need to have a press interview. You know? To smooth things over. You better explain to him that he’ll be in the public eye from now on. I hope he’s not camera shy?”
Axel + no filter + paparazzi = Oh shit!
“Nah Dad, he’s definitely not camera-shy,” I chuckled.
I sat on the edge of the tub, mixing a concoction of bubble soaps to the running water. I loved the way the warm steam was infused with all the delicious scents. It licked my skin and filled the room with a warm and fuzzy vibe.
As soon as the water reached just beyond midway, I turned off the taps, testing the temperature with my fingers. Once I was satisfied, I stepped into what felt like liquid heaven. I fully submerged myself up to my shoulders, feeling it start to wash away the stress as I began to relax and unwind.
I opened my eyes as I lay there enjoying the soak, looking around the stylish bathroom that had floor to ceiling stone effect tiles and missing that stupid frog shower curtain back at Axel's cabin.
Once I finished my bath, I felt refreshed and more like myself again. Each house we owned was always stocked full of essentials, so everything I needed was already at hand: hair products, make-up, clothes.
Axel hadn’t ever really seen me at my best before. He liked my natural look, with my hair scraped back and with no make-up. I wondered what he’d think if I made the effort.
I chose a black Christian Dior dress and matching shoes with a golden heel. I styled my hair poker straight and applied tasteful make-up. I’d forgotten just how long it took to make an effort. Getting ready really was a chore. I was so glad I’d found someone who appreciated me in sweatpants and a ponytail. Just as I was spraying on some perfume Gabe started yelling from the bottom of the stairs for me to hurry my ass along.
“Mrs. Thorne, your husband's lawyer has arrived,” Gabe’s husky voice called out in a sing-song way.
“Thank God. It’s about time this Alec guy showed up, it’s been hours. He better be good, that’s all I’m saying.”
We took the limo to wherever the hell Axel was being held in custody. Dad and Gabe seemed to know exactly where he'd been taken to. They didn’t seem worried, so that made me feel like there was nothing to be worried about.
“Urgh! They’re keeping him in here? In this rat-infested hell hole!” I exclaimed as we pulled up outside a shabby looking county jail. “This is nothing that a wrecking ball won’t improve. Let’s just get him out if here; he’s probably going out of his mind by now.” I scrunched my nose in disgust.
I stepped onto the littered sidewalk and glanced left to right and shuddered. I fumbled around in my purse, taking a silk handkerchief out to use to cover my mouth with before stepping through the threshold into the pits of Hell.
“Let me handle things. You stay here with Gabriel, and for God's sake, don’t touch anything,” Dad warned.
Not that he needed to tell me twice. I didn’t care that I looked like some freakish germaphobe. The place ought to be shut down by the health inspectors. There were rats running around outside amongst the trash for God's sake. I could practically feel the grime in the air it was that thick.
While Dad walked over to the reception desk to ask to speak to someone. I stayed close to Gabe, pressing my handkerchief over my face like a surgical mask. It was a pity it didn’t block out the smell. The whole place smelled like old sweat, gym socks, and stale tobacco. It was gross. Even Gabe wore a repulsed grimace as he struggled to maintain a steady breathing pattern. Maybe this was a shifter thing, the heightened sense of smell. Nobody else seemed phased. I dunno, maybe they were just used to it.
Every now and then the doors would fling open and cops would drag in someone that they’d arrested. Some toothless guy spat at one of the officers and grinned giving me a good look at his mangled gums. I scrunched my nose and looked away.
Dad thanked the female on the desk and came back over to where Gabe and I were standing. Like fuck was I sitting on one of those filthy looking plastic chairs in a designer dress.
Dad kept checking his watch while we waited. The anticipation was torture. Somewhere in this building was my husband. My poor baby. He must be clawing at the walls by now.
“Alec’s here,” Dad announced.
“Where?” I looked around not seeing anyone else.
Dad smirked. “I can smell him. Don’t worry, once you start to shift regularly you’ll pick up on all the different scents, too. That is unless you carry on bathing in designer perfume,” he muttered, teasingly.
“Seriously, I don’t know how you can smell anything through the shitty air in here,” I mumbled, through my handkerchief.
The door at the left of us opened and the first person I saw entering the room was a big buff Italian guy. I could see why he was an Alpha. He was an Adonis God in a suit. There was a woman with him. She was incredibly pretty and had a kind heart-shaped face, chestnut brown hair, and chocolate brown eyes. I’d hazard a guess that she was in her early twenties.
“Alec.” My dad raised a hand as if to say 'hi'. “Nice of you to drop by, old friend.”
Dad and Alec started discussing something in hushed whispers. The young woman seemed much friendlier than he did, smiling as her eyes met with mine. As she stopped she placed a hand over the small bump that swelled her stomach. It protruded ever so slightly through her navy suit dress. I could see she was pregnant and had only just started to show.
Gabe told me a bit about Alec while we waited. I learned that the guy was a five-hundred-year-old Lycan. Apparently, he's a genius who went borderline insane, and that if it wasn’t for his mate leveling him out, he would have flipped and gone on a murderous rampage, killing everything that crossed his path. Well, they do say that genius borderlines insanity.
The beautiful woman extended her arm, offering to shake my hand. As soon as I clasped her hand, I could feel that she mustn’t have been aware of her own strength. I started to lose feeling in the tips of my fingers.
“Hello, you must be Riley Thorne. I’m Leah White, the Luna of Stonevale. I’m pleased to meet you. I hope you don’t mind but I’ve been instructed to act as Axel's attorney. I’m new to this, but don’t let that put you off. I have a way of making people do what I want; call it a special gift.” Her smile widened.
My hand throbbed as she let go. “I just want him out. It's been hours and I’m going crazy. God knows how he must be feeling.”
“Axel is a very good friend of mine and we owe him everything. Or at least I do. He saved my life not so long ago.” The way she spoke so fondly of Axel, and how he supposedly saved her life, it made me worry about how bad things actually got in Stonevale.
Alec stopped mid-conversation and pulled a face as if something was bothering him. “Do you hear that, Griff?” He turned to my dad who had now stopped still and was straining to listen.
Only my dad's closest friends called him Griff. He had very few ‘close’ friends. Mostly they were just business acquaintances. That must mean that this Alec White counted as one of Dad's nearest and dearest and that honor was very rare indeed.
“Yeah...” Dad dragged out the word as he listened. His eyes bulged and shined with amusement. “Is that music coming from the basement cells?”
Alec raised an eyebrow, mockingly. “If that’s what you want to call it. Sounds like someone is singing an Elvis song—badly.”